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"We Shall Overcome" .... The History of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland 1968 - 1978 by NICRA (1978)

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Text: Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

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The History of the Struggle for Civil Rights
in Northern Ireland 1968-1978

Published 1978 by:

Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA)
2 Marquis Street,
Belfast BT1 1JJ


The History of the Struggle for Civil Rights
in Northern Ireland 1968-1978




When the Executive Committee of NICRA were discussing how to mark 10 years of the Association, we decided to commission a short history of the Association since its foundation. We did this because every Tom, Dick & Harry at home and abroad has written about, written off and written down the Association, or else blames it for its alleged key role in creating the situation with which we are faced today.

It was easy to authorise a history, but harder however, to obtain one. We are too near to the events, too entangled in them emotionally to write a glib little history that will be all things to all men. It is impossible to give an "official" NICRA view on our history, because no one person knows all the events as yet and no two people agree exactly on how those events should be interpreted.

What were we to do? Forget the idea? bury the book? spend 2 years trying to get an approved draft? We decided the style in this draft was readable some thought even too readable as the events were described very sharply. At least some of the controversies were described. The interpretation put on events and the leaving out of important aspects of the struggle, will no doubt infuriate readers. What this Association wants is for that fury to spur the makers of NICRA history and Northern Ireland history, to sit down and write out their memories, and their interpretations. No doubt the present Executive Committee could be made uncomfortable on some more recent disputes, and reasons why people left the Association.

We thank our author for making a very creditable start on the mammoth task he has begun in the assembling of the facts of the case. It will no doubt be a very long time before the differences in interpretation are settled.

The history of NICRA will be an ongoing process. After all we still do not have civil rights in Northern Ireland and history is still being made. We also want to add to our knowledge of the period covered so please send us relevant material, pictures, leaflets.

There are many items which could have a chapter of their own in the future such as NICRA 's work in the International Legal Field; How International Interest and support helped the Civil Rights Struggle; The Role of the USA - Helpful and Harmful; The Role of the Trade Union Movement in the civil rights struggle; How Non Violence as a Tactic worked - and many, many more.

We hope you find this publication interesting and stimulating, so that the democratic movement can recognise its past mistakes, and arm itself for victory in the future.

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This is not a chronology of events. It is a story, a true story, of the struggle for democracy in Northern Ireland, and the political context in which is took place. Like all stories it has its share of characters and events, but this story is more important than most, because its characters and events have shaped the course of modern Irish history.

It is a story of how a political dictatorship was toppled by a simple demand for democracy and how a new totalitarianism arose in its place on the strength of political violence. It is a long story, related briefly here to include only the most important points, but it is a story calling out for a more comprehensive telling in the present confused state of Northern politics.

Only the British Government lives happily ever after in this story, but it is a story which has not yet ended. In this pamphlet it concludes with what might have been or what might yet be, but the complete story will remain unfinished until full human and civil rights have been established in Northern Ireland.


The concept of civil rights in Northern Ireland is as old as the state itself. The permanently guaranteed parliamentary majority of the Unionist Party built the state on a foundation of sectarian discrimination, biased administration and a barrage of totalitarian legislation which both protected Unionism and instilled a deep sense of social injustice in the non-Unionist population. The desire for social justice, however, did not manifest itself as a campaign for civil rights until more than 45 years after the state was founded. What had happened was that Unionism had become synonymous with the denial of civil rights and the non-Unionist political organisations fought for the removal of Unionism - by the abolition of the state - and ignored the civil rights question. The dual objective of civil rights and the abolition of the state remained as a single political aim in which the national question took priority.

Led politically by the Nationalist Party and in violence by the IRA, sections of the 'Catholic' minority believed that their rights as individuals could be guaranteed only in an all-Ireland republic. Their political aspirations were articulated with equal ineffectiveness by both protagonists. The IRA carried on campaigns of violence in every decade up to and including the sixties. Each campaign was less effective than the previous one. With the prospect of victory constantly receding, the struggle became an end in itself, a form of sporadic ritual carried over from a period in political history which only Unionist discrimination made relevant. In Stormont the Nationalist Party, the largest parliamentary opposition group, bluntly refused to accept the title of Her Majesty's Official Opposition. They were opposed to the Government, but not officially, and in a consciously unofficial manner they complained about discrimination against Catholics and simultaneously practiced discrimination against Protestants in some Nationalist-controlled councils.

For electoral purposes the Republicans usually contested Westminster elections, always on an abstentionist ticket. The Nationalists settled for attendance at both Stormont and at Westminster.

The Government's answer to the problem was simple. The Republicans were interned and the Nationalists were ignored. Armed with the all-embracing Special Powers Act, once the envy of the South African Government, the Unionist Party was able to maintain the peace by interning whoever displeased it, and armed with an unbeatable parliamentary majority, it exercised its political power and patronage, content in the knowledge that Unionism would last forever. Financed by successive Westminster governments, Stormont was given a free hand to run Northern Ireland as it pleased, provided peace was maintained and loyalty proclaimed. The situation did not alter in any way until the 1960s, the era of the ecumenical movement, when the Beatles came to Belfast, men went into space and Lord Brookeborough went into retirement. It was a period of change.


There was a change in the attitude of the 'Catholic' minority towards the state. The first generation to benefit from the 1949 Education Act had graduated from university, and the newly educated 'Catholic' working class articulated the grievances which had previously been expressed by abstentionism and non-co-operation. Having obtained the right to free education, they were now to use that education to demand other rights. The changing 'Catholic' attitude can also be traced to the influence of the ecumenical movement. The change in religious attitudes was transformed in the politico-religious atmosphere of Northern Ireland into a change in political outlooks.

The message was enlightenment, not entrenchment. Like a Messiah into their midst came a new Prime Minister, Terence O'Neill, who preached the same gospel of peace and reconciliation. It was a language which the Catholic Church was speaking at the same time.


O'Neill preached liberalism and practiced sectarianism. He drank tea with nuns in convent parlours and smiled at Catholic children as they marched past him in para-military ranks in what he called civic weeks. He had a programme to enlist the people, he said, and to the sound of reverend mothers drilling their pupils in convent school yards - Northern Ireland seemed set to march into a new era. Civic weeks began in Unionist towns and gradually worked their way outwards towards the Nationalist periphery in the west and south of the province. The Catholic attitude was one of co-operation. The Catholic Church was in an ecumenical mood and apart from the protest of a lone Republican hunger striker on the steps of Newry Town Hall, O'Neillism paraded the streets of Northern Ireland unchallenged.

When the challenge did come it was from the Unionist side. O'Neillism and ecumenism were particularly Catholic phenomena. Many of the Protestant working class had neither heard of nor experienced the ecumenical movement, and they watched the civic weeks and cross-border visits with a mixture of fear and uncertainty. Things were beginning to change in a society which had experienced no change in forty five years and when Ian Paisley preached reaction in a period of evolution, he had a ready audience. His influence however, was limited. Glengall Street Unionism was still in control. Despite his liberalism, O'Neill still retained the Special Powers Act. In local government, discrimination and gerrymandering thrived on accumulative experience. The RUC and the 'B' Specials, nurtured on a diet of IRA threats -usually imaginary - acted as paramilitary guards for the Unionist system. Unionism, despite its new image would still last for ever. O'Neill was able to withstand any challenge which Paisley had to offer.

But there was pressure on O'Neill from a different quarter. In 1964 the Wilson Report on the economic future of Northern Ireland had given the go-ahead for the build up of multi-national companies on a large scale in the province and although multi-nationalism was indifferent to civil rights, it would operate best in a politically stable system which was on friendly terms with its neighbouring states.

O'Neill's Government was hardly on friendly terms with that of Sean Lemass, himself a great exponent of attracting foreign capital, and the stage hostility between the two did not fit the British Government's economic plans for the future of the island.

Improved relations between the two governments was needed by Whitehall as much as O'Neill and Lemass needed them and accordingly the two leaders met, first in Belfast and later in Dublin. The economic significance of the meetings were clouded by the political implications and while Paisley grabbed the publicity, the three Governments grabbed the opportunity to fashion the economic future of Ireland in accordance with their aims. Political division in Ireland was to be replaced by economic multi-national unionism. It was O'Neill's job to create the right image for Northern Ireland.


He seemed to successfully bring Northern Ireland from the crude sectarianism of the Brookeborough era into the more fashionable sectarianism of the sixties. But his success was nothing more than a media illusion because what O'Neill had achieved was a partial change in attitudes to a 50 year old problem, but he had made no effort to tackle that problem. There was no attempt to change the local government voting system so that one man had one vote and no more than one. He made no reference to the arbitrary powers of arrest and internment under which citizens of the state could be arrested and detained indefinitely without charge or trial. He failed to tackle the serious problem of the unacceptability of the forces of law and order. In short he changed the facade of life in Northern Ireland and left the reality untouched. His true politics emerged when he was asked to implement basic legislative reforms which would have protected the civil rights of the people to whom he waved at his civic weeks. He hung back.

O'Neill failed the first test of liberalism when he neglected the opportunity to implement basic democratic reforms in Northern Ireland. When the civil rights campaign presented him publicly with a set of demands for reform he turned them down. It has been suggested that O'Neill was a prisoner of his own right wing and that the granting of civil rights demands would have forced him out of office, but he came to power in 1963 and the first civil rights demands were not made on a large scale until 1968. His five years in the convent parlour was no substitute for democratic reform.

And if O'Neill was a prisoner, he was a prisoner of his own unwillingness to implement legislative ref orms which would have threatened his position as Unionist Prime Minister, a position of effective dictatorship.


But if the origins of the O'Neill era are well known, the origins of the civil rights campaign are not. The campaign began with the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association [NICRA] but like many great mass movements in history, NICRA did not begin at a precise time in a definite place.

NICRA evolved from a diverse set of political aims and ideals which slowly came together to forge a unity based on a common frustration with Unionism, a broad rejection of crude Nationalism and a growing awareness of the need for an effective vehicle for political and legislative reform. It was essentially a product of the sixties. Original, inventive and novel in a stagnant political system, NICRA avalanched its way through Northern Ireland politics sweeping aside abstentionism and non-co-operation and using direct political demands to hammer on the door of Unionism. The story begins in 1962…..

1968. London protester outside London Ulster office. The message is clear.

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